AGENCIES RIGHT TO BATTLE HYPE;SAINT RUPERT?

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Ad agencies that have resisted expansion and improvement of the Nielsen TV ratings system-unless the broadcasters eat the whole cost-are again up in arms over undue station hype during sweeps periods.

They don't object to the usual beefing up of program schedules-from blockbuster network shows to lurid sensationalism in local newscasts-during the sweeps months, when the ratings are established that local stations use as a basis for pricing their time. But more blatant ratings-grabbers, such as big-prize sweepstakes run by stations during sweeps periods, are viewed by agencies as beyond the pale.

Nielsen flags such events in its printed reports, but its computer tape that feeds into the agencies' media department computers contains only the ratings. Alert buyers can spot unusual blips in continuously metered TV markets, but elsewhere the February, May and November sweeps period numbers are the only numbers; there is no benchmark.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies has now weighed in on the matter, planning a position paper to help its members discourage ratings hype. Nielsen said it's a growing problem, with 151 contests being run by stations-most around the lucrative local news shows-last November, up from 119 a year earlier.

In this era of electronic data flow, it would seem that the Four A's could set up its own watchdog group. Of course, someone would then have to insert the red flag into the media department's computers. And maybe some media maven would have to make a (gasp!) qualitative decision on the offending stations and their rates. And that's the point.

Media departments have reduced TV buying to a numbers game, but they object when stations play the numbers game. Getting agencies involved in monitoring ratings warfare would be a step toward adding quality to the buying decision.

Rupert murdoch is trying on a new role: Television Industry Reformer. He was the first network chief to declare support for a program to rate TV shows for sexual and violent content. Last week, he promised his Fox network will give major presidential candidates a free hour on election eve in November, plus 10 one-minute spots prior to that, to use as they see fit "to address the American people."

Mr. Murdoch is preaching the virtues of good taste in programming and TV's obligation to help change for the better the way politicians run for office. More than a few people in TV, we suspect, are gagging at what appears to be a calculated show of virtue.

Fox, not known for lofty programming, becomes, of all things, a leader in trying to be the concerned parent's friend. As for the elections, Mr. Murdoch's offer lets Fox, with few high-profile journalists of its own, exploit that weakness by offering candidate-supplied programs it can claim aren't controlled by the TV news "establishment."

Self-interest aside, Mr. Murdoch's decision to attach his name to these issues is no small matter. With advertisers behind the concept of a voluntary program rating system, Mr. Murdoch's lead role gives the appearance of dragging others in TV along with him. His attack on the high cost of waging political campaigns on TV will test his influence among TV execs as millions of dollars of ad revenue are at stake. If he really means what he says, he might just force a reluctant TV business to sit down with people concerned about campaign finances and seriously examine alternatives to the present system.

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